Review: Sabaya

A group risk their lives to save sex slaves held captive by ISIS in this latest documentary release from Dogwoof

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Two men drive through a desert at night, a young woman with them in the back seat weeping as she thanks them for rescuing her. Another car chases them, headlights glaring into their rear-view mirrors. Shots are fired but they manage to get away into the night. This isn’t a scene from a Hollywood blockbuster, but a tense early moment from Sabaya, the latest incredible documentary released by Dogwoof production house.

Directed and filmed by Swedish-Kurdish filmmaker Hoir Hirori, this engrossing documentary centres around the Al-Hol refugee camp in north-eastern Syria, considered the most dangerous camp in the Middle East, as it is here that thousands of Daesh (ISIS) supporters are being held under guard. And it’s from here that a small group of people led by a man called Mahmud risk their lives trying to save Yazidi women and girls who were abducted by Daesh forces five years ago and who are being held as sex slaves – called Sabaya.

The film follows Mahmud and his team as they infiltrate the camp armed with a single handgun and a mobile phone to stage daring rescues in the middle of the night – some successful, others not. As well as capturing these daring late-night raids on camera, the film explores the hunt for information about other girls who were taken, leading Mahmud to prisons where Daesh soldiers are detained to interview them and gather information. Hirori also captures some tender and fascinating domestic moments of life at the Yazidi Home Centre where the girls are taken in by Mahmud’s wife and his no-nonsense mother to recover from their horrific ordeals.

A deserved winner at the 2021 Sundance film festival, this film oscillates between edge-of-your-seat moments of tension and moments of calm, with the testimonies of the rescued women, and the eventual reuniting with their families, providing the emotional heart of the film. Most present of all though is the bravery on show. Mahmud is no action hero, just a simple man trying to right a terrible wrong, and even braver than him are the women who, once rescued and recovered, don burqas and return to the camp undercover to find others desperately in need of help.

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